Problems Only Government Can Solve

Foundations are important, but they have their limits.
July 2015
Federal Government office workers searching files in Washington D.C. 1939. (Shutterstock)
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

“For almost forty years our economy has bred stagnant wages, long-term unemployment, huge disparities of wealth, and fewer escalators of social mobility.”

These are the opening words of social scientist Daniel Yankelovich’s book Wicked Problems, Workable Solutions: Lessons from a Public Life. They describe a set of facts that, in ways often unrecognized or unacknowledged, dominates almost every issue.

This list also is a reminder, in an age of disruption and social entrepreneurship, of the importance of government. Technological advances and innovation are rightly prized, and yet the problems Yankelovich lists remain largely undiminished. And they are massive in scale. As Alan Greenblatt wrote in Governing back in 2011, “Public education is a $600 billion enterprise in the United States. All the private money that goes to support it, from bake sales to the Gates Foundation, represents less than 1 percent of that amount.”

It would seem to follow, then, as Hilary Pennington of the Ford Foundation put it at a recent symposium, that “the path to scale is through the government.” I was surprised to hear this from an executive in the philanthropic community and followed up with her. She thinks that the degree of attention paid by foundations and the public to individual social entrepreneurs is problematic because they tend to position government as the problem. She wishes that foundations would devote as much attention to social entrepreneurs within government. Yes, government needs to change, but I agree with her that the path to scale, especially on issues of social justice, is indeed through government because there are limits to what the market will do.

Pennington went on to say that it would be wonderful if young people who are so in love with social entrepreneurship and public service saw government as a credible sphere in which to pursue these ideals. Instead, as she noted, they are skeptical of government as an agent for progress. As Paul C. Light reported in his book A Government Ill Executed, only 28 percent of college seniors who were surveyed saw working for government as the preferred form of public service.

So if it must fall to government to tackle the “wicked problems,” then what should be the role of foundations? For Pennington, the answer depends on the relationship between government and the governed, since it is the public that should determine public priorities. Foundations can help governments be more effective and accountable. They can fund experimentation and then help government make wiser decisions about what programs it should fund. And foundations can rally attention to neglected problems or unifying goals.

Near the end of his book, Yankelovich writes that the central challenge we face is this: “How do we reinforce the human bonds that hold society together?” It seems to me that the only answer is effective and accountable government.